Refugee crisis: Community's combined initiative draws huge support


The community united this week to co-ordinate its response to the refugee crisis. Religious movements, charities and other bodies, led by the Board of Deputies, arranged to meet on Thursday to discuss a cross-communal aid effort.

Representatives of the United Synagogue, Masorti, Reform, and Liberal movements were due to attend. Also expected to be present were London-based human-rights charity René Cassin; the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE); and the Jewish Leadership Council.

The Board's senior vice-president, Richard Verber, who is also campaigns manager at World Jewish Relief, said they would be looking at how to support any international aid effort to refugees from Syria, Iraq and north Africa who had reached Europe, along with what help could be offered to those who were offered asylum in the UK.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain will take 20,000 refugees from camps neighbouring Syria over the next five years, describing the mission as "the modern-day equivalent of the Kindertransport".

Mr Verber said: "It's important the community know what is going on and how they can get involved to help.

"There is a lot happening at a local and individual level, but we wanted a cross-communal group to come together so we can contribute in the most useful way possible."

The community was moved to act after the publication of the shocking image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach.

World Jewish Relief launched an emergency appeal. More than £85,000 has been raised in three days, but Mr Verber said the sum was a drop in the ocean of what was needed.

WJR chief executive Paul Anticoni said: "Europe is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. We must act now." The charity has promised to provide food, shelter and emergency materials to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece who are fleeing war and persecution.

Mr Anticoni said: "Responding in the disaster zones is what the WJR knows how to do and the people who are in the camps neighbouring Syria are the most vulnerable.

"They have not been able to make the perilous journeys others have and we are working with our partners on the ground to help there."

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has pledged his support for the appeal saying Jews have a responsibility to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

He said: "Our heritage must inform the way that we respond. This is a deep and tragic humanitarian emergency."

He urged the Jewish community to provide a "compassionate response at this great time of need."

Rabbi Mirvis discussed the refugee crisis with Pope Francis at a private audience in the Vatican last week, describing it as "a profound challenge".

Reform Judaism's senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner called on the community to support the WJR appeal.

She said: "When we look across at Calais and beyond, we see ourselves. I believe future generations will judge Britain against its response to today's crisis."

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism said: "We see with horror the pictures of the drowned, the hungry and the exhausted, and remember that only a generation ago our parents were refugees, desperate for somewhere to let them in and allow them to live.

"The question is therefore simply: 'What can I do to help?' Directed by the knowledge and skills of World Jewish Relief, we must respond with all the compassion, energy and generosity we can."

Senior rabbi and chief executive of Liberal Judaism, Danny Rich, said: "World Jewish Relief will lead the immediate response of the Jewish community and I trust, using our unique experience, the community will follow through."

Jews in Manchester were being directed to support the appeal by the community's representative council.

Edie Friedman, director of JCORE, said it was important that British Jewry was seen to respond collectively to the crisis. She said: "It is hard to know what to do and, as a community, we want to do what is the most helpful, which is why we want a co-ordinated response.

"People know they can support the appeal and that will help internationally and then we will work out how we can best help refugees once in the UK.

"We don't just want to accept these people - it is important they get the support they need to be here."

She added that the community could have responded quicker to the problem: "JCORE have been warning about the crisis for some time. There is no easy answer but, as a community, those images should resonate with us."

Finchley Progressive Synagogue's Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk is leading a local Citizens UK campaign to get 50 Syrian refugees resettled in Barnet.

The interfaith group includes Rwandan, Syrian, Jewish and Catholic communities in Barnet who are organising homes, school places and doctors' surgeries to support the refugees ahead of their arrival.

As part of the scheme, four Jewish landlords have offered to house refugees, 32 GP surgeries have offered to register refugees and five schools have committed to giving places to Syrian children.

Both Masorti and Reform movements held meetings on Monday. Nic Shlagman, community projects co-ordinator for West London Synagogue, told Reform members about the success of the synagogue's drop-in centre for refugees. He said: "If anyone wants advice or help on how to set up their own one in their shul we can help with that.

"In the short-term, the camp in Calais still needs warm clothing for men, tents and sleeping bags. They also need people to help build shelters. We are co-ordinating a van of volunteers to go and help with that."

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks led calls for Britain to respond to the refugee crisis with a humanitarian gesture similar to the Kindertransport.

He said that Britain needed to take a more generous approach to accepting refugees.

Speaking on BBC2's Newsnight programme, Lord Sacks said: "Some of the images we have seen in the last few days have brought back images that we thought we would never see again.

"They take our mind way back to the Holocaust and it is important to remember simple humanitarian gestures like the Kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 children in Germany.

"It was only 10,000 out of six million, but it lit a light in the darkest period of history."

Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said he was concerned that refuges were risking their lives trying to reach northern Europe having already arrived in a place of relative safety in Turkey.

The former Conservative MP, who is Jewish, said: "From a humanitarian point of view, I don't blame anyone for wanting to seek out a better life in the north of Europe. But, from an asylum point of view, if you are in Turkey already you are not in danger, they are not going to lose their lives if they are in Turkey or Jordan."

He added: "I have no doubt that we should be taking more people. It's not just a problem for the UK. When you go back to the Second World War and the refugee crisis there, it involved large numbers of people going to Canada, Australia and the United States.

"We should be expecting other developed countries to be playing ball and there has been very little discussion around that."

Speaking at the Holocaust Educational Trust annual dinner on Monday, Business Secretary Sajid Javid said: "Anyone who fled murderous extremism 75 years ago will find the refugee crisis we face today depressingly familiar."

He added that it was "incumbent upon those of us who are more fortunate, to offer such men, women and children the safe haven they desperately need and they truly deserve.

"If we look the other way; if we say it's nothing to do with us; if we say a refugee's not welcome here because of his or her religion; then we are no better than those who tried to bar the door against Jewish refugees two generations ago."

Labour MP Luciana Berger criticised the Prime Minister's pledge to take in 20,000 refugees and said it lacked "ambition".

Britain's youngest Jewish MP attacked the slow response of the government and said, "it has done too little and taken too long to respond to this crisis".

Ms Berger said: "It has failed to live up to Britain's historic role as a country that offers asylum to those fleeing persecution and death.

"It has also failed to provide the leadership needed to help co-ordinate our response with other European nations."

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